The British website Casino Online has posted the results of a poll to determine the Top 50 Gambling Books of All Time. Now, I'm no gambler, but I think casinos make a good background for fiction, so I found the list pretty interesting. There are plenty of "how to win" books on there, but there are also quite a few novels and some narrative non-fiction about the history of Las Vegas, Atlantic City, etc. (including BOARDWALK EMPIRE, which the new HBO series is based on). Novelists included are Ian Fleming, Michael Connelly, James Swain, and Harold Robbins (actually a ghost writer in this case, probably Junius Podrog). You can check out the list here.
I’ve mentioned before that FANTASTIC FOUR is my all-time favorite comic book. FIRST FAMILY collects a mini-series from a few years ago that takes a “Year One” approach to the Fantastic Four, picking up the story soon after the disastrous trip into space that gave them their powers and greatly expanding on the origin story from FF #1. This is a dangerous thing to do when it comes to long-time fans such as myself. A writer has to do more than a simple retelling of material, but change too much and guys like me are going to be unhappy.
I’m glad to say that while there’s a little ret-conning going on in FIRST FAMILY, it doesn’t really mess with the established storyline too much, merely updating a few things and adding a villain we’ve never heard of before. The important thing is that Joe Casey’s script does a good job of capturing the characters, and some of the scenes, such as Ben Grimm’s first visit back to his old Yancy Street neighborhood after he’s turned into The Thing, work very well. It’s also nice to see little details like how the FF came to establish their headquarters in the Baxter Building. The new bad guy (who doesn’t have a supervillain moniker) isn’t too impressive, and neither is the FF’s final showdown with him. But the characters are more important here than the action, and on that score, FIRST FAMILY delivers.
The art by Chris Weston is okay, with decent storytelling that’s easy to follow for the most part, and his version of The Thing is excellent, although it’s based on the later appearance of the character, not the lumpier original version that Jack Kirby gave us in the early issues. That’s a quibble, though. Weston’s Torch isn’t bad, either.
FIRST FAMILY is an entertaining collection if you’re a fan of the Fantastic Four and have some nostalgia for those early days, as I certainly do. If you fall into that category, too, it’s worth reading.
When I was a kid I was a big fan of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW on TV, as most people were in the early Sixties. I also liked the movie NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS, where Griffith played an affable country boy in the Army. I’d also heard some of his comedy bits on the radio, such as “What It Was, Was Football”. But somehow I never got around to watching his film debut, which was much, much different from those other things. I’m talking, of course, about A FACE IN THE CROWD.
At first glance, Griffith plays a similar character in this one, a grinning, guitar-playing, yarn-spinning good ol’ boy from a small town in Arkansas. He’s discovered in the drunk tank by a local radio personality played by Patricia Neal, who does a man-in-the-street show called “A Face in the Crowd” on her uncle’s small-market radio station. In short order, Griffith’s character, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, becomes a radio star, then a TV star on a station in Memphis, and then the networks come calling and he heads off to New York to become the biggest thing on nationwide television, eventually wielding such power over his fans that he may well be able to determine who’s going to be the next President. Neal’s character goes along with him, as does a writer from the Memphis TV station played by Walter Matthau.
There are hints early on, though, that Lonesome Rhodes isn’t the friendly sort that he pretends to be. In fact, Griffith turns in a great performance as a character who’s actually rotten to the core, as big a heel as any to be found in an Orrie Hitt novel. A FACE IN THE CROWD is a very dark film, a bleak, almost vicious attack on the advertising business, the TV business, and America’s obsession with celebrities. Despite the Fifties trappings, it plays very much like it could have been made in today’s increasingly bitter climate.
This film was directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, and it reminds me in places of their earlier collaboration, ON THE WATERFRONT, especially the sense of despair that runs through it. It also puts me in mind of the fact that Schulberg was responsible for another Movie I’ve Missed, WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? I probably ought to watch it sometime, or at least read the book, which I think I have around here somewhere. Most of you have probably already seen A FACE IN THE CROWD, but if you haven’t, it’s well worth watching. It’s not what you’d call a likable film, but it is very well done.
There's a new interview with me on the All Pulp Website, as part of their "Moonstone Monday" which spotlights new projects coming up from Moonstone Books. I have a story in THE GREEN HORNET CHRONICLES, which will be out soon. You can find the interview here, and check out the rest of the All Pulp site while you're there. It's a great site, packed with news, interviews, and reviews of all things pulp.
AVENGERS: SIEGE is a graphic novel collecting a recent mini-series published by Marvel, plus a couple of related stories. The book doesn’t actually say “Avengers” on it, but since they’re the main characters I feel justified in adding that tag. I’ve discussed before how I gave up reading comics in the Nineties in utter disgust at the constant rebooting, complete disregard for continuity and the long-time fan, and creative decisions that I considered ridiculous and wrong. In recent years I’ve slowly begun working myself back into comics, usually with collections like this one, and I’m glad to say that all the stuff that went on in the Nineties seems to have been brushed aside and forgotten for the most part. The Marvel Universe today at least bears more than a passing resemblance to the one I enjoyed so much during the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.
Enough curmudgeonly rambling. What about the story at hand? I’m fuzzy on some of the back-story, of course, but as the book opens, Asgard, home of Thor and the other Norse gods, has been transported to the earthly realm and is now floating in the air above Oklahoma. Why? I dunno, but I’m willing to go with it. Norman Osborn (yes, that Norman Osborn, the guy who was the original Green Goblin and who was dead for a long time but now is alive again) has apparently reformed and is the head of H.A.M.M.E.R., which seems to have replaced S.H.I.E.L.D. as the main peacekeeping force in the Marvel Universe. He’s also organized his own teams of Avengers and X-Men made up of former super-villains. Ah, but Osborn is really still a bad guy and has also put together a cabal of other super-villains that’s operating behind the scenes. I don’t know how all this came about, but again, I’ll go with it. The real Avengers, led by Steve Rogers (who used to be Captain America, but then was dead, but now is alive again but not Captain America, who is now Bucky Barnes, who used to be dead . . . oh, the hell with it) are considered outlaws and are hiding out. Got all that? It doesn’t really matter.
Osborn, who has appropriated a version of Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor and now calls himself the Iron Patriot, for nefarious reasons of his own launches an attack on Asgard, putting the place under siege by most of the superheroes/villains who work for him. Thor and the rest of the real Avengers show up and try to stop him. That’s about the extent of the plot. It’s a real slugfest, as Stan Lee used to say, and lots of stuff Blows Up Real Good.
Tell you what, though . . . I pretty much loved it. This is the same sort of story that Marvel was doing forty years ago in its heyday, only then, of course, it would have played out in the pages of the regular Avengers title, on cheaper paper with less technically-advanced coloring. The script is by Brian Michael Bendis, rightfully regarded as one of the best writers in comics today, and he does a fine job of capturing the voices of the different characters. By the end of the story he’s also managed to sweep away some of the plot clutter of the past few years and gotten things back to a more traditional Marvel Universe (which is just fine with a reactionary old fart like me, of course). The art by Olivier Coipel is good for the most part, although the storytelling is a little hard to follow at times. I like his versions of Thor, Cap, Iron Man, and the other classic Marvel characters, though.
Reading this has convinced me that I’m doing the right thing by starting to read some of the core Marvel titles again. I’ll never be the comic book fan that I once was, but I still enjoy a good superhero yarn. SIEGE definitely falls into that category. If you’re a Marvel fan and haven’t read it yet, I recommend it.
Jada M. Davis’s novel ONE FOR HELL, published in 1952 by Red Seal Books, a cousin of Gold Medal also published by Fawcett, has long had a reputation as a lost classic and one of the finest hardboiled crime novels ever written. Well, guess what? It deserves every bit of that reputation.
ONE FOR HELL is the story of Willa Ree, a tough, down-on-his-luck drifter who drops off a freight train in the West Texas oil town of Breton. Determined to make a big score for himself, Ree is single-minded in pursuit of that goal, almost to the point of being a force of nature as much as a character. He’s a ruthless sociopath, and when he gets involved with the crooked politicians who run things in Breton, they see him as a perfect instrument for strengthening their hold on the town. What they don’t know is that Ree has plans of his own that may wind up bringing down all of them.
The plot snakes back and forth relentlessly, involving murder, robbery, lust, and long, tense scenes of brutal violence and suspense. Although Davis concentrates on Willa Ree for the most part, there are also vivid portraits of other desperate characters in the small town. The book never specifies that it takes place in West Texas, but I’m convinced that it does. I’ve been around enough oil towns to recognize the setting, which Davis recreates with gritty accuracy. The pace is fast, and the writing, which approaches a stream of consciousness style at times, is raw and crude and very powerful. Oddly enough, although Willa Ree is an irredeemably evil character, at times the reader almost roots for him to succeed, because nobody else in ONE FOR HELL is very sympathetic, either, and Ree is almost admirable in his single-mindedness. Almost, but not quite.
After reading this book, I really don’t understand why it hasn’t been continuously in print and compared to the best work of James M. Cain. It certainly belongs in the same tier as the best of the Gold Medal writers such as Harry Whittington, Charles Williams, Gil Brewer, and John D. MacDonald. Maybe it’s because Davis wasn’t prolific, publishing only one other novel that I’m aware of, THE OUTRAGED SECT, which came out from Avon in 1956. If he had written more, maybe ONE FOR HELL would be better remembered.
Thankfully, it hasn’t been completely forgotten. Stark House is about to reprint it, and they deserve a lot of credit for doing so. You want a “lost classic” that’s the real thing? ONE FOR HELL is it. It’s also one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year, and if you’re a fan of hardboiled fiction, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
This year's Longarm Giant Edition is a sequel of sorts to the story arc that ran through the previous four Giant Editions, but it can be read as a stand-alone as well. Jessie Starbuck and Ki from the old Lone Star series make another appearance and team up with Longarm again, for those of you who enjoy those crossovers.
I just did an interview with the Italian crime fiction blog Liberi di scrivere. You can read the English version here, or on Paul Brazill's excellent blog You Would Say That, Wouldn't You. And the Italian version translated by Luca Conti, for you completists, is here. I believe there are some things in this one that I haven't talked about in previous interviews, so check it out if you're interested.
I’ve been a fan of Orson Welles and his movies for many years, so it’s no surprise that I’d watch ME AND ORSON WELLES, a backstage yarn from the point of view of a high school student and would-be actor who finagles his way into a part in Welles’ modern-dress Mercury Theater staging of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” in 1937. It’s a coming-of-age story, too, as the kid not only learns a lot about the theater and Welles’ eccentricities but also falls in love with the young woman who helps manage the troupe.
This is an old-fashioned movie, not flashy at all, well-written and very well-acted. Zac Efron is the kid, Claire Danes is the young woman he falls in love with, and Christian McKay, an actor I’d never heard of, turns in a spectacular performance as a young Orson Welles. McKay looks like Welles and does a good job on the voice, but mostly it’s a matter of capturing the attitude, the mixture of arrogance and brilliance that allowed Welles to accomplish the things he did. Also, knowing quite a bit about Welles’ later career, it was interesting to me to see the origins of some of the projects he tackled later on. The movie does a fine job of recreating the Thirties atmosphere, too.
Maybe it’s just because of the subject matter, but I think ME AND ORSON WELLES is one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Highly recommended.
"Entertaining" isn't usually a word that springs to mind when you're thinking about eBay listings, but check out this one. Be sure to scroll down and let all the pictures cycle through. I'm tempted to get me one o' them hats. (Thanks to Livia for the link.)
Almost thirty years ago, I was part of an informal writers’ group located in the Fort Worth/Dallas area. We called ourselves the Higher Arts Council – and yes, of course we pronounced it “hack”. The first meeting was held in a small sandwich shop in Arlington, near the UTA campus, and to the best of my memory, five people were in attendance: me, Warren Norwood, Geo. W. Proctor, Bob Vardeman (Proctor’s good friend and frequent collaborator who lived in New Mexico but was visiting him at the time), and Sandra Brown. I knew who Sandra was because I’d seen her doing some weather forecasts on one of the local TV stations, and because her husband Michael Brown was the host of a morning show on the same station. I wasn’t aware until then that she wanted to be a writer, too, and had, in fact, recently sold her first novel, LOVE’S ENCORE, which Dell published later that year as part of its Candlelight Romance line, under the pseudonym Rachel Ryan – a pen-name derived from the names of her kids, Sandra explained to us.
The hacks’ meetings continued for several years and expanded to include many other writers from the area, including Neal Barrett Jr., Kerry Newcomb, and Laura Parker. I don’t recall Sandra attending any of the other meetings, so that was the only time I’ve met her. I have, however, read quite a few of her books over the years. She quickly became a best-selling author of romantic suspense novels, and she’s one of the very best at that genre, in my opinion. Many of her novels that were published as category romances also have suspense and thriller elements in them and are worth reading. She has that storyteller’s knack of being able to keep the readers turning the pages at a rapid clip.
Which brings us to her recent novel RAINWATER.
As she explains in the brief note that opens the book, she wrote this novel on spec, something she probably hasn’t done since breaking in back in 1981. Instead of romance or romantic suspense, it’s more of a mainstream novel set in a small town in central Texas in 1934, at the height of the depression. There’s a modern-day framing sequence that flashes back to the story of Ella Barron, who runs a boardinghouse in Gilead, Texas, and tries to cope with her mentally disturbed ten-year-old son Solly (short for Solomon). The local doctor thinks that Solly is too much of a burden for Ella as a single parent (what happened to her husband is one of several mysteries that gets resolved in the course of the book) and ought to be institutionalized. Ella is determined to keep Solly at home and do the best she can for him, though. Then a mysterious new boarder named David Rainwater shows up and changes everything.
It would have been easy for Brown to turn this into a standard romance novel, but she doesn’t. Rainwater has secrets that make that impossible. In a plotline that’s reminiscent of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the town’s bigoted bully-in-chief harasses not only the local black community but also the poor whites who have lost their homes in the Depression. There’s plenty of drama, along with a healthy slice of small-town Americana, before everything comes to a head in a surprising but very effective conclusion. Then Brown springs a nice last-minute twist that I didn’t see coming and makes the book even better.
I really like Depression-era fiction, and Brown does a fine job capturing the setting and the time period. Back in the Sixties there were a lot of little Texas towns that hadn’t really changed much since the Thirties, and having been around many of those, I felt like I had been to Gilead, too. RAINWATER is an excellent novel, one of the best I’ve read this year, and if you’re looking for a change of pace, I highly recommend it.
This movie was pretty much universally reviled by critics and audiences alike, but I dunno . . . I liked it. (I’ll bet you saw that coming.) Now, I’ll admit, if you look up “far-fetched” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find the poster for KILLERS. The premise is that Ashton Kutcher is a professional assassin working for a shadowy government agency, but he retires when he meets and falls in love with a beautiful computer programmer played by Katherine Heigl. Jump ahead three years and Kutcher’s character is a successful building contractor, Heigl’s doing well in her career, and they’re just a typical happy suburban couple. Then people start coming out of the woodwork trying to kill Kutcher, and the two of them have to go on the run. Much fighting, shooting, and assorted chaos ensues. Stuff Blows Up Real Good. Eventually, of course, everything gets sorted out.
Yes, this is a slick, Hollywood action comedy, and the plot winds up being pretty weak even by the standards of that genre. But Kutcher always comes across as a fundamentally decent guy, and he handles the action hero stuff pretty well, too. Heigl’s incredibly good-looking. The supporting cast includes Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara, both good as always, although I ask you, what sort of self-respecting shadowy government agency would have Martin Mull as one of its agents?
KILLERS falls squarely in the category of mindless entertainment, but for a couple of hours, I was definitely entertained. That’s good enough for me.
Seen the movie DEATH WISH with Charles Bronson? All right, now imagine him older and with a British accent. Oh, yeah, and he looks like Michael Caine. That gives you a pretty idea of what about half of this movie looks like, as Caine plays a retired British marine who goes after the young punks who are making life miserable and dangerous for the people in his neighborhood. The other half is a mixture of police procedural stuff with the cops looking for the vigilante and slow, arty, melancholy stuff about Caine’s life as a friendless widower. This makes for a pretty schizophrenic film, but give it time and it starts to work. Caine is fine as always, the supporting cast does a good job, there are some nice action scenes along the way, and everything builds to a pretty satisfying showdown. I can’t give HARRY BROWN an unqualified recommendation because some of it is too slow for my taste and it could have used a few more scenes of the old codger openin’ a can of whup-ass on them punks, but I think it’s worth watching.
PUSHOVER is one of the Harry Whittington novels that was unknown for many years. Fans of Whittington’s work knew that he had written more than three dozen unidentified novels during the early to mid-Sixties for an unspecified publisher, and although suspicion grew that these were written for William Hamling’s various soft-core sleaze imprints and sold through the Scott Meredith Agency, it took some impressive detective work by David L. Wilson, Lynn Munroe, and Whittington’s son Howard to pin down most of the titles. (You can read all about this in Wilson’s introduction to the Stark House collection, TO FIND CORA/LIKE MINK LIKE MURDER/BODY AND PASSION . . . and if you don’t have that book already, you should pick up a copy as soon as possible. There's also a lot of information about these nearly lost books here.)
This is the first of those “unknown” Whittingtons I’ve read. I have another one on hand, BAPTISM OF SHAME, and will get around to it eventually. PUSHOVER is the story of Jeanne Stuart, a beautiful 22-year-old blonde and former airline stewardess, who is married to the much older Hal Stuart, the hard-driving owner of an air freight service. (Hal’s ancient! He’s . . . 43!) When Hal has a heart attack and winds up in the hospital, that’s the signal for Jeanne to think about her life and for Whittington to launch into a flashback that takes up the first half of the book and details how Jeanne lost her virginity, had an affair with dashing pilot Don Hansen, and finally met and married Hal.
Hal recovers from his coronary, but the doctor warns Jeanne that his heart is too weak for him to have sex anymore. This causes all sorts of problems, of course, which are complicated when Don, who’s a real jerk, shows up again.
Unlike some of Whittington’s sleaze novels which are really crime and suspense yarns, PUSHOVER is all medical drama and soap opera. What it has going for it is the sheer narrative power of Whittington’s prose and his talent for putting his characters through all sorts of emotional torment. Even when there’s not much plot, he knew how to keep the readers turning the pages, and I found the ending not only slightly surprising but also very satisfying. This isn’t top-notch Whittington by any means, and there are probably better candidates for reprinting among the other, formerly unknown books (hint, hint), but it’s a very readable, entertaining novel. Recommended, if you can find a reasonably priced copy.
A couple of years ago I was in real reading funk, and the book that snapped me out of it was Ed Gorman’s SLEEPING DOGS, his first mystery novel featuring political consultant Dev Conrad. I’ve just read the second book in the series, STRANGLEHOLD, and even though I’ve been on a run of good books lately and didn’t need a funk-breaker, this one is just as much fun as Dev’s debut.
Maybe “fun” isn’t the right word to describe it, though. There are some moments of sly humor, of course, but what really comes through is the sense of melancholy and compassion that you find in all of Ed’s books. In this case, Dev’s firm is running the re-election campaign for an Illinois congresswoman, and when she starts disappearing at odd times and seems bothered by something, he’s called in by his associates to find out what’s wrong. A former army intelligence officer, Dev functions a lot like a private investigator in these books, while at the same time having to deal with the frustrations of a political campaign.
The congresswoman has a convoluted family history and secrets of her own, and when one of the campaign consultants for her rival winds up being murdered, she’s not a suspect herself, but it seems likely that the crime will be blamed on one of her relatives. With the police convinced they know who the killer is, Dev has to launch his own investigation and find the real murderer in order to have any chance of salvaging the congresswoman’s campaign. Naturally, Gorman piles on several more twists, including another murder, before Dev straightens everything out and discovers the truth.
While the mystery angle is top-notch, as usual, the real appeal of this book, as was the case with the first one, is Dev Conrad himself. Cynical, pragmatic, a little bitter, yet clinging to the hope that there really is some goodness still to be found in the world, he’s a great narrator and definitely the sort of guy you want to have on your side if you’re in trouble, whether it has anything to do with politics or not.
STRANGLEHOLD will be out in a few weeks, but you can pre-order it now. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you do. Highly recommended.
Here's the cover for the brand-new Italian edition of TEXAS WIND, published by Meridian Zero. If you read Italian (I don't), there's a blog post about the book's release here. I'm very pleased and proud that this edition is coming out, and I love the cover. Here's a big thanks to Marco Vicentini, Matteo Strukul, and all the other good folks at Meridian Zero!
This little indie comedy is another Movie I’d Never Heard Of, but as it often seems to turn out, it’s also a pretty good film. The protagonist is Dale Sweeney (David Allen Basche), a young man who hosts a middle-of-the-night call-in radio show on a small AM station in Florida. Dale’s callers are UFO nuts, conspiracy theorists, and all sorts of fringe weirdos, but that’s the focus of the program. It provides a forum for anybody to get their ideas out there, no matter how odd, and as Dale says, “I’ll believe you.”
Unfortunately, the station manager isn’t as sympathetic and wants to cancel Dale’s show. Then, a strange caller starts calling in every night at 1:13 and spouting what sounds like gibberish for five minutes. In order to save his radio show, Dale starts to hype the idea that the caller is really a space alien stranded on Earth and trying to communicate with his home planet. The ploy works, but then mysterious guys in black suits and sunglasses show up and start asking questions, and a wave of odd robberies hits the town, and things keep on getting weirder . . .
This movie is more whimsical than it is laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s smart and well-written, with a very nice twist about halfway through and another funny twist at the end. It also has the great Patrick Warburton in it and a supporting cast that includes comedy veterans like Fred Willard and Chris Elliott. I’LL BELIEVE YOU is an entertaining, very likable movie, and if you haven’t seen it (which is likely, given its low profile), it’s certainly well worth watching.
I’m always on the lookout for good, tough Western writers. Having read and enjoyed some of Giff Cheshire’s pulp stories, when I came across this novel by him I decided to give it a try. Set in Nevada, it’s a range war yarn. Wells Packwood, owner of the Clover Leaf spread, is trying to gobble up all the other ranches in the area. Pick Atherton buys the Mesa Ranch, knowing about Packwood’s plans but figuring he can hold off Packwood’s ambition. Packwood plays dirty, though, moving a family of nesters onto a spring and some range Atherton claims, then raiding the place, murdering the head of the family, and framing Atherton and his Mesa ranch hands for the crime.
If you’ve read very many Westerns, especially the ones published by Doubleday in the Fifties and Sixties, there won’t be much in the basic plot of this one that surprises you. It’s your basic “greedy rancher vs. tough hero who’s finally pushed too far” story. Cheshire does some nice things to set it apart, though. For one thing, there are three strong female characters in the book – Packwood’s wife, the wife of another rancher in the area, and the daughter of the nester who is murdered early on – and all of them have important parts to play in the plot. They’re some of the best-developed characters in the book as well, and I was surprised by how some of their plotlines played out. Cheshire spends a lot of time on his villains, too.
Which brings up the only real flaw in THE SUDDEN GUNS. For a guy who’s supposed to be the hero, Pick Atherton really isn’t “on-screen” much in the book and doesn’t have a lot to do except in the big showdown at the end (which is a good one). He remains something of a cipher as well, as the reader never learns much about him. But the good supporting cast makes up for that to a certain extent.
Giff Cheshire had a long, productive career as a Western writer, beginning in the pulps and producing hardback novels into the Seventies. In everything I’ve read by him, he has an enjoyably hardboiled style. THE SUDDEN GUNS doesn’t break any new ground, but it’s a solidly entertaining traditional Western and is worth reading for fans of that genre.
If you're a fan of espionage and secret agent fiction (and as I've mentioned before, I read a ton of it during the Sixties and Seventies and still read some from time to time), I highly recommend that you check out this site. Just be prepared to spend quite a bit of time there.
I chose that Nick Carter cover to go with this post because HANOI was the first Nick Carter novel I ever read . . . but not the last, by any means.
This book originally came out in England in 1971, and I must have read it a few years after that when the Edge series was picked up in the U.S. by Pinnacle Books (the first Pinnacle, an imprint that was a spin-off from the porn publisher Bee-Line, not the Pinnacle Books that are published today by Kensington). The first time I saw any of the Edge books was in Monnig’s Department Store in downtown Fort Worth, when I worked in the book department there in the fall of 1975. Several of my customers who read Westerns liked them, but in the words of one customer that I’ve never forgotten, “They’re sure not like them Louis L’Amours.”
Well, no. They’re not. In fact, although I had read a lot of Westerns by then, I think it’s safe to say I’d never read any like the Edge books.
The set-up really isn’t that non-traditional. Union cavalry captain Josiah Hedges returns after the Civil War to the Iowa farm that his younger brother Jamie has kept going during the conflict, intending to resume his normal life despite all the death and horror he’s witnessed during the war. But when he gets home, he finds that Jamie has been tortured, robbed, and murdered, and fairly recently, too. With nothing to keep him there, Hedges goes after the killers, and in the course of trailing them he discovers that they’re a group of no-account former soldiers he knew during the war. Obsessed with vengeance, Hedges plans to track them down and kill them, and heaven help anybody who gets in his way. It’s during this quest that a mispronunciation of his name leads to him being called Edge, a monicker he doesn’t mind adopting.
What sets this book apart, at least initially, is the high level of graphic violence. I just reread it for the first time in more than thirty years, and it’s just as shocking as it was back in the Seventies. Edge is very much an anti-hero. The only thing that makes him even a little bit sympathetic is the fact that he’s not quite as bad as the men he’s after. There’s also a heavy dose of gallows humor, as Edge turns out to be quick with a bad pun, especially after he’s just killed somebody.
I was a little thrown by the violence back then (I still don’t like really graphic violence in books and movies), but there was no denying the sheer speed and power of the writing. I read most of the books in the series, and the author – British novelist Terry Harknett, writing under the pseudonym George G. Gilman – gives the whole thing an epic feel by providing flashbacks to Edge’s service during the Civil War and really fleshing out his character, along with those of his enemies. There’s also a strong satiric streak to the stories which becomes more apparent as the series goes along. This first entry is pretty serious except for the occasional puns and one-liners by Edge, which are also more prevalent in later books. In rereading THE LONER now in the new e-book edition, I was impressed by how well it holds up.
The Edge series isn’t for everybody, but you’ll be able to tell within a few chapters whether or not the level of violence is too high for you. If you like the first book, I recommend sticking with the series, because it really does evolve in interesting ways as it goes along. For now, it’s good to see the first one available again after a number of years. This is an important series in the history of paperback Western novels.
What’s left to say about Lee Goldberg’s Monk books? You already know they’re some of the very best TV tie-in books being published today. More than that, they’re some of the very best mystery novels being published today, period. MR. MONK IS CLEANED OUT is the latest in the series, and it’s excellent, as always. You should read it right away, if you haven’t already.
Oh, I suppose I can say a little more. In this one, Monk again loses his job as a consultant because of severe budget cutbacks by the San Francisco Police Department, and the floundering economy is a big part of the plot. Monk is in even worse shape because he had invested all his money with a financial manager who turns out to be crooked, meaning he’s broke. That leads him and assistant Natalie Teeger to take a series of oddball jobs while Monk is also trying to solve several murders that are part of the same case involving the larcenous financial manager.
The plot is appropriately twisty, but as usual, Goldberg plays fair with the clues. Monk has never been more miserable (or funnier), and Natalie’s narration is as charming and appealing as ever. I was really sad to see the TV series end. For years now, it’s been a summer tradition at our house to watch the previous season of MONK on DVD (along with PSYCH, another great series). Thankfully, the novel series is continuing, so we won’t be completely without visits from Monk, Natalie, Captain Stottlemeyer, and Lt. Disher. For now, MR. MONK IS CLEANED OUT comes highly recommended by me, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Lee handles the developments from the TV series finale in future books.
NO WAY OUT is the first book I’ve read by Joel Goldman, and it’s a good one. It’s part of his series featuring retired FBI agent Jack Davis, who was forced to leave the Bureau because of a medical disability. He has a movement disorder in which stress brings on a number of violent tics . . . not a good thing for somebody who normally carried a gun in his line of work. Jack, who is also the narrator of the book, now works as an investigator for a private detective firm, and as this novel opens, he and his fellow operatives are involved in a case with a high potential for tragedy. A husband in the midst of a bitter divorce with his wife is suspected of kidnapping and murdering their two young children, who have disappeared. Jack and the people he works with are trying to find the kids.
While that’s going on, Jack gets dragged into another case when he witnesses a shootout in a barbecue joint. This is another domestic case – a husband arguing with his wife pulls a gun and kills her, after which the young female bookkeeper who works for the man pulls her gun and shoots and wounds the man to keep him from killing everybody else in the place. Jack winds up trying to help the young woman, who has a troubled family history, after she gets mixed up in what is apparently a conspiracy to commit murder.
If you think all this sounds complicated, well, Goldman is just getting started. NO WAY OUT has one of the most complex plots I’ve encountered in a long time, and as Jack tries to work his way through both cases, he runs across twist after twist. You know those books where the detective has to spend page after page at the end explaining everything? This is one of those. When handled well, it’s a very good thing, and Goldman does a great job of nailing everything down. There are lots of murders, lots of suspects, and plenty of action.
The real appeal of this book, though, is Jack Davis himself. He’s a mess, both mentally and physically, but still very likable. A lot of times when you have a detective with some sort of physical disability, it comes across as gimmicky, but not here. Jack has a lot more to be angst-ridden about than just his movement disorder, including living with his ex-wife who’s dying of cancer. Throw in some missing and possibly murdered kids, and NO WAY OUT is a pretty grim book, but Goldman manages to insert just enough moments of humor to keep the bleakness from becoming overwhelming.
I also liked the setting, which is Kansas City and the surrounding area. It’s a refreshing change from New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. The prose is nothing fancy, just straight-ahead storytelling, but it certainly kept me turning the pages.
NO WAY OUT is a good example of a complex thriller with a flawed but appealing hero, and I’ll probably read more by Joel Goldman. Recommended.
This Movie I’d Never Heard Of has an oddball but interesting premise: A group of archeologists funded by the Smithsonian are conducting a dig in the Grand Canyon in the late 1800s when the elderly scientist in charge of the expedition disappears while trying to find proof of his theory that the ancient Egyptians traveled to North America. A group of his fellow scientists, including his beautiful daughter and accompanied by a cynical newspaper reporter, sets out to find him.
That’s a pretty pulpish plot, and the mixture of Western, historical, lost race, and fantasy elements ought to make for a rip-roaring adventure yarn. Unfortunately, the execution isn’t as charming as the idea. The script has enough anachronisms to be a little annoying (like the fact that the female characters are referred to as Ms., a term I don’t think existed in the Nineteenth Century), and the low-budget special effects aren’t very effective. The acting is okay at best, although Michael Shanks turns in a pretty good performance as a reluctant scientist/hero (the part Doug McClure would have played if they’d made this movie during the Seventies).
Despite that, the sheer goofiness of the plot does have a certain appeal to it. With its fistfights and scary monsters and even a quicksand scene (!), I would have loved this movie when I was eight years old and took such things completely seriously. If you’re still in touch with your inner eight-year-old (you know I am!), you might find it worth taking a look at.
Arthur Sullivant Hoffman was the editor of the pulp magazine ADVENTURE from 1911 to 1927, when it was considered to be the top pulp in the world and the one that most would-be writers really wanted to crack. Robert E. Howard fell into that category, because he was a regular reader of ADVENTURE and submitted many of his stories to it, but unfortunately he wasn’t able to sell any of them. (Luckily for his readers he kept at it and had success with other magazines.)
Hoffman also wrote several books about writing fiction. This one, originally published in 1922, was reprinted recently by Black Dog Books, and it ought to be of great interest to anyone who writes fiction, at whatever level.
But one thing I should warn you about right away: Hoffman was very much a writer of his time, and even for that era, he was one long-winded son of a gun. But he has some really good things to say if you take the time to dig them out. Here’s an example:
“For twenty years I have watched the flow of manuscripts – more tens of thousands than I like to remember – and am year by year more convinced that more embryo writers of appreciable ability are ruined by an overdose of technique at the hands of their literary doctors or by slavish copying of the work of some ‘successful’ writer than by any three other causes you please to name.”
I certainly can’t argue with that. One of Hoffman’s main points is that each writer should develop his or her own style and techniques that work, and that the best way to do that is by writing.
Here’s another quote that I like:
“Some, like Sinclair Lewis, Talbot Mundy, and others, fully realizing the situation and keeping their heads, write what they know will sell, write it as well as they can under the limitations, and keep on writing it until they have attained sufficient standing and financial foundation – and sufficient mastery – to write what they wish and in the way they wish.”
That really sums up the life and goal of a professional freelance writer. Ah, but Hoffman goes on, perhaps somewhat brutally:
“But the vast majority become permanent slaves in the galley where they must serve their apprenticeship, perhaps growing very skillful at handling one oar among the many oars but hopelessly unable to paddle their own canoe.”
Hey, Arthur, I resemble that remark!
Here’s a quote concerning writers as readers:
“Their attitude is at least partly that of a critic rather than a recipient; their interest in ‘What is happening’ is at least partially distracted to ‘how it is written’.”
That’s something else I’m really guilty of. I often have a hard time just letting myself enjoy a book because I’m constantly taking apart how it’s written and thinking about how I could apply what I see to my own work. Hoffman, on the other hand, thinks that writers should always have their readers in mind first. Too often I catch myself writing for other writers, thinking about things that they would appreciate, rather than concentrating on the story and the reader’s reaction to it.
One more quote, this one not from Hoffman but from an unnamed author of his acquaintance:
“I try to give the reader a lot for his money. I don’t try to do any fine writing. Only one in a million of us can be a polished stylist. [I don’t agree with that, for what it’s worth.] I’m not that one, but I think I can evolve a story and tell it. So there is no more agonizing about the style. I try not to make the outside of the motor car which bears my people all gold and shiny and flower-decked, so that the countryside will look at the car and not at those it contains. I just try to make it a good, suitable, unobtrusive vehicle that will start and get to the journey’s end without any tire trouble or backfires.”
That’s a pretty good approximation of how I work. I think style is more important than this author makes it out to be, but I try to keep most of my attention on the story.
While a lot of Hoffman’s advice is pretty standard stuff – show, don’t tell, and don’t give your characters names that are easy to confuse with each other, for example – he has a lot of good things to say about how fiction is primarily illusion and ways to maintain that illusion. When I used to give talks about writing to various groups, I often started out by telling them that I was a professional liar, that my job was to make up the biggest pack of lies I could think of . . . and then convince them that it was all true, at least for as long as it took them to read the book.
While I wouldn’t recommend FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING to anyone who isn’t a writer, or wants to be a writer, I think it’s an excellent book that has a lot to offer in the way of practical advice, as well as in things to ponder. I know it’s improved my work already, and I’m glad it’s back in print.
Adventure! is a new blog devoted to historical adventure fiction and well worth checking out. Here are some of the authors who inspired this blog: Max Brand, John Buchan, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Bernard Cornwell, Clive Cussler, Arthur Conan Doyle, Alexander Dumas, Jeffrey Farnel, Michael Curtis Ford, C. S. Forester, George MacDonald Fraser, Arthur O. Friel, Zane Grey, H. Rider Haggard, Robert E. Howard, Rudyard Kipling, Harold Lamb, Louis L'Amour, Jack London, Alistair Maclean, Johnston McCulley, Patrick O'Brien, James Rollins, Rafael Sabitini, Simon Scarrow, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne. You can't beat a line-up like that!
Despite their current popularity in books, movies, etc., I’ve never been that much of a zombie fan. Oh, the classic pulp zombie, the sort that shows up in novels by Hugh B. Cave and stories by Cornell Woolrich and Henry Whitehead, is all right, I suppose. The shambling, munch-your-brains, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD type of zombie never did much for me. The new fast zombies . . . forget it.
However, recently several people, including my friend Michael Davis, recommended the comic book series THE WALKING DEAD to me, so I was willing to give it a try. I’ve now read the first two trade paperback collections, DAYS GONE BYE and MILES BEHIND US, which reprint the first twelve issues of a series that’s still on-going.
The protagonist of THE WALKING DEAD is small-town Kentucky cop Rick Grimes, who is badly wounded during a shootout with a fugitive and winds up in a coma for three weeks. When he regains consciousness, he discovers that the hospital is full of dead people – the zombies – and even deader people, the ones who have fallen victim to the zombies. He manages to escape and finds that some terrible, unknown calamity evidently has befallen the whole world. There are no newscasts, no government, nothing but zombies and a few isolated human survivors. One of those survivors tells Rick that before the government collapsed, people were urged to head for Atlanta because the plan was to protect the big cities from the zombie hordes. Rick thinks that maybe his wife and young son went there, so he heads for Atlanta himself.
But when he reaches the city, he finds that it’s an even worse wasteland full of zombies. All the news is not bad, though. He meets another human survivor who helps him escape and takes him to a human encampment just outside town where Rick finds that his wife and son are alive and staying with these other survivors.
All of that is set up pretty quickly, in what was the first issue of the comic book. From there on, the story concerns the efforts of Rick, his family, and his new-found friends to survive in this hellish environment. I like the fact that even after twelve issues, the characters have no idea what happened to cause the catastrophe or if things will ever get better. This strikes me as very realistic.
There’s quite a bit of zombie-fightin’ action, but the story is more concerned with the interactions of the human survivors. It’s sort of like a soap opera with, well, walking dead in it. And while I wasn’t really sure at first if I liked this series, I found myself drawn into the story so that I had to keep flipping the pages to find out what was going to happen. Creator and writer Robert Kirkman provides some excellent fast-paced scripts that take several unexpected turns. The black-and-white art by Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard is effective and does a good job in its storytelling.
So even though I’m still not a zombie fan in general, I did enjoy these first two volumes of THE WALKING DEAD quite a bit. I don’t have any more of the series on hand right now, but I definitely plan to read more of it. Recommended (with the caveat that there’s lots of tragedy and general gruesomeness).
From what I can tell, this is a Canadian/German TV mini-series released as a feature film on DVD. It’s an old-fashioned disaster movie, complete with brilliant but impossibly good-looking scientist heroes, cute kids, grumpy but heroic old-timers, clueless politicians and military officers, and no real villains other than a capricious universe. In this case, the trouble starts when during a meteor shower, a chunk of a brown dwarf star slams into the Moon and imbeds itself deep beneath the lunar surface. The impact, plus the added weight of the incredibly dense dead star, throws the moon into a crazy orbit that makes gravity go crazy on Earth. Even worse, the Moon’s orbit is going to deteriorate to the point that it will eventually crash into Earth itself, shattering the planet.
I’m no scientist (to quote my friend Neal Barrett, Jr., who once said to me, “Who do I look like to you? Mr. Wizard?”), but most of the scientific explanations in this movie sound pretty sketchy, and the actors rush through them as if the director doesn’t want the audience thinking too much about them. To be honest, though, nobody watches stuff like this for the science. We watch for soap opera and stalwart heroics, both of which are in abundant supply in IMPACT. David James Elliott is the strong-jawed scientist hero, playing the role like something out of a Doc Smith novel, and Natasha Henstridge is the most gorgeous brainiac since Denise Richards in that James Bond movie, whichever one it was. James Cromwell is the father-in-law of Elliott’s character, Steven Culp is the President, and the rest of the cast consists of actors I’ve never heard of, although they may be well-known in Canada and Germany. Everybody is very earnest, which is understandable when the Moon is going to crash into the Earth in a month.
Despite my borderline snarkiness and the predictability of the script, IMPACT actually is pretty entertaining and manages to generate considerable suspense at times. I’m not suggesting you rush right out to pick up a copy, but watching it is an okay way to spend a couple of evenings or a long afternoon when you don’t have anything better to do.